This article first appeared at Upside Down World.
Armed with machetes, sticks, and farm tools, residents of Cherán, Michoacan, covered their faces with bandanas and set up barricades around their community on April 15. It is a scene reminiscent of Oaxaca in 2006, except this time, the barricades aren’t meant to keep out paramilitary death squads; they keep out organized crime.
The barricades have come at a cost for the town’s 12,600 residents. Schools have been shut down since Easter, and the economy has come to a standstill. However, without the barricades, kidnappers and illegal loggers who are in league with organized crime would continue to prey upon the town with complete impunity. For Cherán’s residents, unabated impunity is unacceptable, because in addition to the usual laundry list of drug war crimes–murder, kidnapping, extortion, and torture–the illegal loggers, protected by organized crime, have destroyed an estimated 80% of Cherán’s woodlands.
When the municipal, state, and federal governments refused to protect Cherán from organized crime, the community took matters into its own hands. Now, not only are they driving organized crime out of they’re community, they’re also kicking out the political parties, whom they blame for allowing insecurity and crime in Cherán to spiral out of control.
Upside Down World spoke with “Emilio” and “Salvador,” two Cherán residents who have united with their neighbors to maintain the barricades around the clock for the past month-and-a-half. For fear of reprisal against their families, they requested that their real names not be used in this interview.
Impunity and Insecurity
Emilio: Illegal logging began in Cherán about ten years ago due to our own community authorities’ irresponsibility and poor organization. That led us to the situation we’re in today, and now we’re paying a terrible price for their irresponsibility.
In recent years, the crime has only gotten worse in Cherán. Before, the loggers would arrive, they would ask permission to cut down the trees, and if you were protecting a certain area of forest, they would respect that. Now it’s not like that. They enter private property without the owners’ permission, and if the owners discover them they tie up the owners and beat them. And you see these loggers with their really nice trucks with four or five people in them, and they’re armed with big, high-powered guns to threaten and scare the community members. As a result, over the past four years, a significant portion of our forests have been depleted.
Most of us who live in Cherán work in the fields, and we’re ranchers. Organized crime has hit us hard there, too. They steal our cattle. A lot of ranchers stopped keeping cattle because of the insecurity.
Everyone in Cherán knows who is committing these crimes. The only ones who don’t seem to know are the authorities.
The three levels of government–municipal, state, and federal–have completely ignored the community’s demands for the past three or four years. It’s criminal. In that time, about eleven people have died and even more have been disappeared; there are extortions and kidnappings, and the State hasn’t done anything to stop these people who have squashed the dignity of the Cherán community. Now organized crime and the illegal loggers are collaborating. Organized crime protects the illegal loggers, because the illegal loggers pay “quotas” [fees] to organized crime in exchange for protection.
The political parties are responsible for this situation because they marginalized us and ignored organized crime and the indiscriminate theft of our forest resources. Since the political parties have become involved [in the community], they have imposed the people who serve as the community authorities. And we don’t even know what those authorities are doing or why they’re there.
It is the authorities’ fault that the situation got so bad. Because who do I, a community member, go to to complain? I used to go to an authority and I would complain, and the authority would ignore me and wouldn’t back me up, and I’m left standing there with my arms crossed. So when these heavily armed people started showing up, what were we supposed to do? What could we do, apart from turning around and running away? So compañeros started asking each other, what do we do? On a couple of occasions the people got together and tried to go and stop them, but since we went unarmed, we always left beaten and bruised and terrified.
I personally have tried to file formal complaints with the government in which I name criminals who have committed certain crimes. The government never even investigated those complaints, so I’m scared to even talk about them. I’ve filed complaints with the anti-kidnapping unit, with the Attorney General’s Office, with the governor [of Michoacan], and we even went to Mexico City to file complaints with the Assistant Attorney General’s Office for the Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO). And I haven’t received any response from any of them. They haven’t done anything. When we went to Morelia to inquire about how the investigation was progressing, they hadn’t investigated because of the security situation in Cherán. They say that the safety of the officials they would send to investigate can’t be guaranteed, so they don’t send anyone. The criminals are outside Cherán, not inside. It makes us feel bad that they respond in that way, because there isn’t a single official who knows what the problem is in Cherán, so the investigations into the disappearances and extortions don’t go anywhere.
I have a brother who disappeared on February 10, 2010, because he demanded that the state and federal governments take responsibility for the environment, that they stop the illegal loggers so that our forests aren’t depleted so rapidly. Before my brother was disappeared, he told me that the illegal loggers were threatening him. And now they’ve been threatening us since my brother disappeared. There’s been no progress in the investigation. He disappeared without a trace.
The day my brother disappeared, two other people were also disappeared. An armed commando came into the town and kidnapped the two of them right out in the open. To this day we know nothing about where they are. We know even less about my brother, because no one saw what happened to him.
I feel as though I can’t speak freely because we’ve been threatened. I’m not afraid for my own safety, but I have a family and young children. I don’t want the criminals to punish me for speaking out by going after my family or another one of my brothers.
Erecting the Barricades
Emilio: Erecting the barricades in Cherán took about six months of planning and discussion. Before that, a lot have people had been beaten. The criminals began to have free reign in the town, and they corrupted it. The trucks loaded with illegally harvested wood would pass straight through the town. One time, the people were watching this happen, and they began to yell “Enough!” and they began to search for a way to stop it.
The town decided to rise up and put up barricades so that outsiders couldn’t enter in order to ensure the community’s safety. The barricades are still up because we haven’t seen a response from the government. We are demanding that the government solve all of the crimes. We want justice.
Soon it will have been two months since we erected the barricades. Two months of intense sacrifice and struggle. Our children are missing school–that’s a high price that they have to pay. Classes have been suspended since Easter vacation. The only thing I can leave my children with is an education. That’s why I work, so that my children can receive an education and become better community members and better Mexicans.
The violence hasn’t stopped despite the barricades. There are barricades in and around the town, so they can’t come into the community to commit crimes. But out of necessity residents sometimes go out into the woods or they go out to feed their animals or lead them to pasture, and that’s when organized crime takes advantage of the opportunity to sow fear.
Since we put up the barricades, the government sent some police and soldiers, but it’s not enough.
Salvador: We don’t know how exactly many police and soldiers the government has sent to the area because it varies. For example, since there was a rumor that [Javier] Sicilia [and the Caravan for Peace] were going to pass through Cherán today, today there were a lot of soldiers and federal and state police. They even brushed their hair and made themselves up real nice. But it’s really relative. Sometimes they’re there, and sometimes they’re not.
Emilio: The criminals keep coming after us, and they keep disappearing people. So yes, there’s a lot of police in the area, but what good are they? It might have diminished a little bit, but they are still logging illegally despite the police presence. I don’t know if it’s due to fatigue or what, but the police don’t detain the loggers. There’s even videos where the vehicles are leaving the forest with wood, and the state and federal police are right there and they don’t do anything.
Salvador: And the day the police went to investigate a disappearance, the illegal loggers magically were nowhere to be found. Who warned them away? Is the state government in league with them? We don’t know, but when there’s a military or a police operation, the loggers disappear.
Recently, the press published some articles that we think came from the municipal president’s office. The articles mention that the municipality is asking the public to stop sending aid to Cherán, because everything is back to normal there, even though absolutely nothing has been resolved. They’re saying this so that people stop sending us aid, and it’s worked, because now we’re not receiving as much aid as we were before. Nonetheless, we continue to request that people send us aid, because we’re still resisting.
Obviously it is not true that everything is back to normal in Cherán. It’s so untrue that a few days ago one of the community members went to his fields to check his crops and his animals. And they kidnapped him, and we haven’t heard from him since. Is that what they call security? Is the government really complying with its obligations here? Fifteen days ago, another compañero was kidnapped. Fortunately, he has now shown up. But this is how they’re scaring us. There’s no security, so how could the government be saying these things?
The government doesn’t see the real problem here, which is that they’re still illegally logging our forests. Today, at this moment, they’re still pillaging our natural resources. The government doesn’t even look at that problem.
Solidarity and the Road Ahead
Salvador: We won’t stop until we achieve our goals. Our first objective has been achieved, and that was town unity.
Emilio: We have to be very organized so that the political parties don’t come in and divide us. This dignified struggle has required a lot of sacrifice from the community. We won’t let the [electoral] candidates break us or co-opt us. We are trying to govern ourselves through uses and customs [traditional governance mechanisms that exclude political parties]. Instead of helping us, the political parties in Cherán have left us to rot. All of the political parties are corrupt. They’ve violated us and led us to the situation we’re in right now. That’s why now, the people of Cherán are saying “no more political parties,” because the political parties sunk Cherán.
Salvador: We decided against the political parties, because the parties only represent the people in power, and they’re not interested in the people and their problems. That’s become very clear to us since we rose up.
Emilio: There’s a lot of people from Cherán who are in the United States. I have three brothers who live there. Now that the insecurity has gotten so bad, people from Cherán who live in the United States have sent us money to support us. A lot of Mexicans who live in Los Angeles and St. Louis have sent us money, as have social organizations. With their help, we’ve been able to travel to Morelia and Mexico City to demand justice. Because bus fare isn’t cheap. And since we can’t work, we wouldn’t be able to pay travel costs otherwise.
When my brother was disappeared, the kidnappers demanded a ransom for his release, but then they didn’t hand him over when we paid it. And since he disappeared, my family and I haven’t been able to work because we’re afraid. The majority of the people in Cherán are in the same situation. As a result, the town’s economy has been affected so badly, and that’s why we’ve been asking for solidarity from outside the community, solidarity in the form of food and money. And we thank all of the Mexicans who work so hard to earn a dollar in the US and send it to us so that we can keep struggling.
I ask for support from all of my fellow countrymen who are in the United States. But not just economically. Support us with ideas, because we need ideas to move forward with work projects so that we can create jobs in our community. Because before, a lot of our people also made a living from illegal logging. Now what are they going to do? So we really do want people to support us with ideas so that we can solve Cherán’s economic problems.
Salvador: Please keep supporting us, and hopefully we’ll achieve our dignified objective, which is peace. Our people are hardworking and they never beg. Today, we’ve decided that we won’t beg, but we will ask for support, because it’s necessary. We’ve kidnapped ourselves and our town in order to protect ourselves. We can’t leave Cherán, but you can come visit us. The press is very welcome in our community. We treat them very well, because they’re our voice to the outside world. That’s how our voice has crossed borders into other countries, and they hear us demanding justice and peace. We’re demanding justice for the fallen, the kidnapped, the forests, our rivers, and for Mother Nature. That’s all we’re asking for.